In the United States, “we do a much better job helping people plan financially for the second half of life than we do helping them navigate their way from one phase of life and work to engagement in another.” So observes nonprofit entrepreneur Marc Freedman in David Corbett’s book of life-planning advice, “Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50.”
Corbett and coauthor Richard Higgins give voice and flesh and clothing to a new vision of “retirement” that has already taken root in America, one that includes a combination of work and other pursuits. Corbett is the founder of New Directions Inc., a Boston-based consulting practice that goes beyond career placement to offer “accomplished individuals” assistance in planning for post-career fulfillment. His approach strikes a chord. He argues that after 50, individuals will do better to avoid career planning for its own sake that then must be reconciled with family and leisure pursuits to create balance. Instead, he says, those individuals should engage in holistic “life portfolio” planning, evaluating career options primarily in the context of the desired balance.
Corbett defines “life portfolio” as a mix of work, leisure, family time, learning and giving back. Helping his book are the pithy anecdotes of real people, many of them Corbett’s former clients, who have remade their own life portfolios. In Chapter 1, for example, the reader meets Hank Schmelzer, who had been CEO of a Boston-based mutual fund company.
“When he turned 50, Hank set a goal of starting a new career in a different field within five years,” Corbett writes. But when 55 arrived, Schmelzer wasn’t ready. He hadn’t formed any strong ideas of what he wanted to do next, and the thought of leaving his high-paying job was “gut-wrenching.” Eventually, a corporate reorganization gave Schmelzer an opportunity, and he became a Corbett client. From there, he took his time, taking a long vacation in Italy and starting to think about what he wanted to do next—what mattered most to him. It took him nearly two years, but eventually Schmelzer discovered a job running the Maine Community Foundation. The job seemed a good fit for his skills, and it piqued his interest because he had a second home in Maine, had attended the University of Maine and had loved the state since vacationing there as a youth. Working in a nonprofit turned out to be a huge adjustment, but Schmelzer has made his mark there, more than doubling MCF’s endowment since 2000.
These personal anecdotes are featured in many of the book’s chapters. At 180 pages, it’s an easy read and one that will be welcomed by those already at the point of needing to make decisions about retirement and/or a second career, and also by those who may be five or six or eight years away but have started to think about the day when they’ll reach that point.
Focus on Day-to-Day Rewards
A strength of Corbett’s approach is his emphasis on the daily-life aspects that factor into a person’s satisfaction with a job or avocation. Don’t decide on a type of retirement purely on the basis of financial, family or leisure goals, he cautions. Think about what makes you happy on a day-to-day basis. As an example, he shares the story of a CEO who retires without a fully formed plan and discovers after some time in his new life that he sorely misses the human interaction of an office, of seeing and meeting with and working alongside a variety of people each day. This client talks about the loneliness of retirement with a tinge of regret.
In sum, “Portfolio Life” does not contain groundbreaking new ideas. Like most career-advice books, the primary message at its core is pure common sense, writ with a few new labels. But when it comes to career change, millions of people know common sense can easily become difficult to find—as one wrestles with the pulls and pushes of high-paying salaries, family obligations, health concerns and matters of self-worth. Corbett’s contribution is explaining in clear language how one can use a thorough process of thinking and evaluating to make good choices about his or her future.